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Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden Elgin

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted , 2019

Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue was originally published in 1984. As far as I can recall I had never heard of it, and have read only one of her other books, decades ago, with little memory of it. It will be reissued next month, July 16, 2019. I received a free e-ARC from Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review. Based on a description on their site I thought the ARC was going to include the complete trilogy, but it's just the first book. The other two titles, The Judas Rose and Earthsong, will also be released the same day. It may be just a temporary error at Amazon, but at this time they only show a trade paperback for Native Tongue, whereas the second and third titles also have Kindle listings (at just a slight discount from the paperbacks), with the third on Audio CD too (but not Audible). You can also search for used copies of earlier issues from third-party sellers, or check ebay or The original paperbacks were from DAW, reissues in the early 2000s from the Feminist Press at City University of New York, and they're also the ones publishing the new ones.

Elgin earned a Ph.D in linguistics from San Diego State University, and also taught there for many years. On her archived blog she wrote, "I have the distinction of being the only person, so far as I know, who ever had to write two complete dissertations to get just one Ph.D." The second one was on the Navajo language. In addtion to her SF, she also wrote quite a few non-fiction books on lingusitics. I assume that also played a part in her fiction other than this trilogy. She was also a champion of women in SF, at one time saying, "women need to realize that SF is the only genre of literature in which it's possible for a writer to explore the question of what this world would be like if you could get rid of [Y], where [Y] is filled in with any of the multitude of real world facts that constrain and oppress women. Women need to treasure and support science fiction." [From Wikipedia.]

A prologue establishes that the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was overturned in 1991, denying women the right to vote, to hold elective office, or to do anything without the consent of a male relative, father, husband, brother, or legal guardian. Today we have to read at least that part as an alternate history, but much of the rest of the narrative is similar to how it must have been for women before the 19th Amendment, or even later, when they weren't allowed a bank or credit account in their own name. Women become second-class citizens again, or even less than citizens the way most men talk of them. Multiple declarations by men detail how frivilous women are, their limited intelligence, their inability to do much more than run a household. And have babies. It starts in 2205, then flashes back to 2175, then later advances to 2212. Contact had been made with extraterrestrial intelligences. A system had been in place for at least a century that handled communications with the aliens. A select group of families, The Lines, are specially trained, and bred, for their linguistic abilities. From a very young age, children are introduced to the aliens through an Interface, in order for them to absorb their language and then later teach it to others. The linguists, nicknamed the Lingoes by the general population, are also tasked with learning multiple Earth languages, as well as sign language. A separate government attempt to communicate with the aliens has been a failure.

The linguistics issue is interesting, as is the altered role of women in society, but we learn practically nothing about the aliens. Another element is how the linguists are resented by others, even the government. They're perceived as elitist and arrogant. None of these elements are fully develop to any degree. There were times the plot didn't go where I expected, or it was diverted when years are skipped over, leaving threads dangling. The less said about the men the better, since none are sympathetic. Their misogyny is so grossly exaggerated it's disgusting. Linguistics is important since it is the way the women deal with their plight. They create their own language, LŠadan, so as to have a way to communicate amongst themselves in defiance of the men. Not knowing why the women are suddenly acting differently, the Head of the Lines decides that all women will be segregated from the men, as older or infertile women had already been. Instead of running away to some remote area on Earth, or emigrating to one of the space colonies, the women now think they can continue their plans side by side with the men. Unless the men discover their secret language. Unfortunately, this isn't fully developed either, but this is just the first of a trilogy. I may continue with the others one of these days, but probably not anytime soon. It had the potential to be as ground-breaking as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, but falls short due to the inconsistent tone. It should have been either more subtle with the men's attitude, or played more broadly as comedic satire. I'm rating this just 3 stars on Goodreads. At most it would fall short of 3.5.


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Suzette Haden Elgin

Original: 1984
Reissue: July 16, 2019

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